Just inside the south entrance of New York City Hall, a bronze statue of George Washington stands contrapposto on a raised pedestal, solemnly gazing above all who enter.

It’s one of the many statues and paintings of white men in City Hall that Kamau Ware takes note of during a tour he leads on a recent afternoon – reminders of "who's not present."

"People gave their literal lives to fight against enslavement, but they don't get the statues or the street names, or often the movies, either,” Ware said.

The 48-year-old artist and historian was leading one of his Black history tours: the inspiration for a documentary he released earlier this month, with support from the city Public Design Commission.

The planned three-part series is titled “EPICENTER: The Black Experience Through the Eyes of City Hall,” and the recently released documentary is called “The Grounds.”

We can't separate Black history from the city of New York, because they're intertwined from the very outset.
Kamau Ware, historian

The 14-minute film is a crash course on the “hidden” Black history of New York City, and by virtue the country, using City Hall past and present as a framing device – from the slave-trading history of the city’s founding and its namesake to a massive African burial ground recently rediscovered by the grounds of City Hall.

Standing beneath Washington’s gaze, Ware shared stories of Black New Yorkers who fought for freedom before the founding father ever stepped foot in New York City.

Kamau Ware leads his own Black history tour of New York, using City Hall past and present as a framing device.

Like Samuel Fraunces, who led patriot gatherings at his tavern further downtown, which still exists today with a sign of Washington hanging outside. And a man named Othello, who participated in a rebellion in 1741 – a purported plot by Black slaves and poor white settlers to take over New York City. He was hanged as punishment, just a block north.

History through City Hall

Since founding Black Gotham Experience in 2010, Ware has collaborated on Black history tours and projects with Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the prominent Brooklyn arts institution BRIC and the Hudson Yards cultural center The Shed. The organization began because of a question Ware received during one of his tours two years earlier at the Tenement Museum. A young girl around his son’s age asked: Where are the Black people?

“We can't separate Black history from the city of New York, because they're intertwined from the very outset,” he told his tour group.

At the beginning of the tour, Ware handed out white cards with biographies of different historical figures he referenced throughout the walk: from the white revolutionary John Jay – the namesake of a local public university – to Catherine Ferguson, a Black philanthropist and former slave who started the city's first Sunday School, and Rose Butler, who was hanged for setting fire to her enslaver's home.

On the other side of the cards was a map of downtown and three colored dots marking the locations of the City Hall buildings past and present, also covered in the virtual tour.

The first City Hall, built in 1653 by the Dutch further downtown, was taken over by a royal English brother duo, who established the city in 1664 to be a commercial slave-trading hub, to sell grains and other provisions made with slave labor to plantations in the West Indies, Ware said. New York City is named for one of the brothers, the then-Duke of York, a slave trader.

The first Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street, circa 1700s.

Everett Collection / Shutterstock

The second City Hall, renamed Federal Hall when New York became the first capital of the United States, was built by slaves around 1700 – as was the road it was on, Wall Street. The current City Hall was built about 100 years later.

Ware says the cornerstone was laid at the southern tip of an African burial ground that was only rediscovered a few decades ago, under the tenure of Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor. It’s the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in the continent for free and enslaved Africans.

“This is an intention out from the outset that says: we don't mind burying over your burial ground,” Ware said.

'Go look over there'

That erasure goes beyond just the burial ground. The city has buried or covered up much of its Black history, he said. Northerners may critique the South’s notorious support of slavery, "but before there was a cotton-planting South, there was slavery in the North," he added.

“The easiest form of erasure is ‘look the other way.’ You know, you don't gotta really blow anything up or cover anything up,” Ware said. “The North is innocent. Go look over there.”

Series of sculptures by Melvin Edwards, each one incorporates some form of chain, against backdrop of New York City Hall in City Hall Park, Nov. 17, 2021

Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock

Many tour goers are surprised to learn of the city's long and deep history of slavery, he said. On a recent afternoon, a tour goer – an immigrant man who used to live in California – said his old neighbors cast New York City as its own unique entity.

“They always told me, ‘Oh no, New York, it's not the United States. It's different.’” he told the group and Ware directly. “I can see through your explanation. I can understand what the roots are.”

On this day, Ware’s tour audience was a group of Black activists, scholars and organizers from Lisbon, Portugal, who are working to erect a memorial there for enslaved people. Ware’s excursion was the group’s last stop in a multi-state survey of Black history museums, landmarks and tours across the United States, including a Charleston plantation and the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.

'Can't bury spirit'

Ware’s emphasis on the hidden history resonated with several members of the group, who said that European countries – having largely abolished slavery decades prior to the U.S. Civil War – often cast their racial politics as more enlightened, and slavery as a particularly American problem.

But starting with the Portuguese in the mid-16th century, Europeans created and accelerated the transatlantic African slave trade – and some historians argue that the continent’s continued wealth relies on its brutal history of enslaving African people.

“The negative impacts of this history is hidden,” said one of the tour goers, Evelina Dias, co-founder and board president of DJASS, the Association of African Descendants.

“It's the kind of violence that is so...” she said, pausing mid-sentence. “How can you tell somebody that they have no history?”

While Black Gotham Experience offers other Black history tours across the city that are open to the public, Ware’s City Hall tours are currently ad hoc. He’s still searching for funding to support the tours and the two upcoming films in the series.

Historical omissions, gaps in public knowledge of the city’s and country’s Black history, is what motivates his work, he says, along with connecting with others across the world interested in learning and sharing global Black history.

“You can bury over a site, bury over a building, knock something down and cover it up,” Ware says at the end of the documentary. “But you can’t bury spirit.”